We all reveal who we are in the telling of stories, especially those pertaining to the past; relationships and intimacy are built on the sharing of stories, especially at the beginning. But those high in narcissistic traits have a vested interest in self-presentation, and so it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that how he or she curates the past can be revelatory, if you are really paying attention. Alas, often the recognition involves 20/20 hindsight but it doesn’t have to if you are alert to common patterns and behaviors.
The curation of the past—whether that’s childhood, adolescence, or events and relationships in adulthood— and the present is a function of self-protection and, additionally, is calculated to engage his or her partner’s empathy which may make it harder to see. The truth is that if you look hard enough, you will learn to see them with clarity in time. (Throughout, to avoid a pronoun pile-up, I will be using the masculine pronoun throughout. Please note that women too can be high in narcissistic traits.)
What drives the narcissist to curate
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin sums it up: “Narcissists bury normal emotions like fear, sadness, loneliness, and shame because they’re afraid they’ll be rejected for having them; the greater their fear, the more they shield themselves with the belief that they’re special.” That’s why the childhood stories you’re likely to hear are all filled with cloudless skies and endless love and good cheer; it all sounds idyllic until you realize that, somehow, it just doesn’t jibe. That was certainly the case for one woman:
“The childhood he described sounded wonderful—clamming on the beach, going sailing, being surrounded by friends. I was taken aback when, much later, he confided that his father had been a binge-drinker, never drinking in front of the family but simply disappearing for days at a time. It was as though these two versions of his childhood existed on parallel tracks in his mind and when I challenged him, he became angry and said that he hadn’t been affected by his father and that only his brother had. I chalked it up to denial but, now, it’s clear in context and of a piece with his other behaviors.”
Want to spot a narcissist? Pay attention to whether he owns his emotions, especially those that—in his view—make him look weak or like a loser.
Common patterns of curation and rewriting
Childhood is one area, for sure, but curation is pretty open-ended and the closer you look, the more the patterns will become evident. Curation and lying, of course, sometimes share common ground but the former is a bit more subtle than the latter.
She done him wrong: past romantic relationships
For an attractive guy, his history is noteworthy for all the women who have apparently betrayed or spurned him, despite his best efforts. He’s quick to tell you how he did “everything to make her happy” and regale you with stories that seem to underscore that very point but nonetheless, nothing he did was enough. Predictably enough, your heart breaks for him—which is what he intends—and you promise yourself that you’ll never take him for granted the way the others did. Of course, there’s a fair amount that’s been edited out, including how he tried to control her, isolate her from friends and family, and more. Of course, you won’t figure that out until later.
You may utterly miss the point—which is the point—that he never acknowledges that the end of the relationship might have had to do with his behaviors because he never accepts responsibility for anything. Nope, he’s in the business of blaming others but you never see it that way because you’re too busy feeling empathy for his frustrations and travails. Score!
The volume gets turned up considerably if the ex he’s talking about is an ex-wife, by the way. You will, at some point, discover that nothing he said about her was even remotely true.
The one guy wearing a white hat in a black hat world
There’s a common theme to his curations and that’s that he never does anything wrong; he doesn’t own a mistake or a misstep ever. So, if something goes amiss at his work, it’s someone else’s fault and the plot line is always the same: him against the world. The project he was working on was doomed by his co-workers, he didn’t get the promotion because the boss played favorites, he lost the case at trial because the judge made rooky mistakes, and on and on. That said, he is quick to pounce on other people’s flaws and to nitpick their weaknesses. Yes, he does this to aggrandize and reassure himself at once but he’s also prepping you for your loyalty to Team Narcissist. When push comes to shove, he wants you totally on his side.
His stories never include any gray or nuance; it’s all black and white, all the time. Of course, you’re so busy feeling for him that you hardly notice. Until, that is, you find yourself on the receiving end. Bingo!
The situational rewrite
You know how people are always saying that there are always two sides to a story? Well, don’t tell that to the narcissist who is always in charge of the script or, rather, his script. He’ll use all the tools at his disposal including gaslighting to make it crystal clear that he alone has a bead on the truth. You probably don’t see it as a pattern—after all, you’re a rapt listener—until the day comes and you actually disagree with him and he tells you point blank that what you are saying never happened. He may go further than that—telling you that you’re prone to exaggeration or that you simply got it wrong as you always do—but, suddenly, you’re not so sure of yourself and he’s absolutely counting on that.
Does the narcissist know he’s lying? Well, that’s not as clear as you might think. In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo notes that, “Because of his distorted, defensive relationship to reality, the Extreme Narcissist often believes the lies he tells, both to himself and to other people. He doesn’t see himself as a liar but rather as an embattled defender of the ‘truth’ as he has come to see it.” Burgo adds that he may not lie to disguise the truth, which is something quite different; the bottom line is that he hews to the script he’s designated as truth.
Should you have the misfortune of having to challenge that truth—in a court of law, for example—you will find yourself painted black just as he did his other adversaries. He is his only priority.
Listening closely to someone’s stories is one way of recognizing a person’s essence. By becoming better and more questioning listeners, we open ourselves to making better choices.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.